Mar 172017


In this more personal As Seen From Afar I’d like to put the perspective upside-down and try to explain the results of this week’s election to those who have followed it from afar, worried that the Dutch might end up with ‘another Trump’ by voting for populist Geert Wilders of the Party voor de Vrijheid (PVV), lit. Party for the Freedom.

First of all, let me explain why it was very unlikely the Dutch would end up with a second Trump, and to do so I have to delve into the history and rules of our election system a bit, so bear with me for a moment.

One major difference between the American and the Dutch system is that officially our head of state is our King so we do not elect a President as head of state; our head of government is the Prime Minister, or Premier, who also isn’t directly elected. We have a parliament, which consists of two chambers and of which the Second Chamber, or Lower House, is the basis for a government. It has 150 seats, which are filled through elections using a party-list proportional representation: all votes are equal and every vote counts as one.

So far,  so good, as we say. After the elections, usually the leader of the party that “wins” the election, i.e. most seats in the 2nd Chamber, also gets to have a go at forming a government. If he (until now it has always been a ‘he’) succeeds, that person becomes the Premier, the head of government. Of course the Premier has little or no power/authority compared to an American president: no presidential decrees. Appointing ministers in the Premier’s cabinet is usually a complex game between his party and others.

You may have noticed I used a lot of ‘usually’ and quotes, and that brings me to the second reason why Wilders could not have become the Dutch Trump. As described above, the 2nd Chamber has 150 seats, to be filled by all the fractions that get enough votes to fill one or more seats. But here’s the rub: this year there were 28 parties to choose from and of those 13 made it into the 2nd Chamber. This means that seats are scattered among parties and a majority government can only be formed by forming a coalition, as usual.

2 3 do 16 mrt. 2017 NRC Handelsblad NRC Digitale editie

2 3 do 16 mrt. 2017 NRC Handelsblad NRC Digitale editie

The graphic above has Dutch text, but I’ve added it to give you an idea of how elections have developed in the Netherlands from 1959 onwards and to illustrate why the Dutch were not as alarmed about the prospect of a Premier Wilders. The top graph represents all fractions and their seats in the past three elections, the red-barred graph on the left the number of fractions since ’59 and the one below the minimal number of fractions needed to form a coalition since then.

Foreign reports on the issue often portrayed the election as a fight between the Geert Wilders and the Premier at the time, Mark Rutte (VVD), where in fact is was Wilders against 27 other parties. With our tradition of coalition governments not one Dutchman expected a Canadian Trudeau-effect of a majority win, not even Wilders himself I should think. He could of course have become the largest party, and before the campaigns started that seemed a reasonable possibility. But it’s effects were further countered by all major parties promising to decline to form a coalition government with the PVV, denying Wilders the possibility of ever becoming a Premier.

2015-03-17 22:40:37 DEN HAAG – VV-fraction leader Geert Wilders (L) en Premier Mark Rutte after a debate

Trump’s election success in November 2016, which undoubtedly greatly influenced Wilders’ polling numbers, pushing him beyond that of Mark Rutte’s VVD, had made Wilders very cocky, crowning himself Premier even before the election campaigns were anywhere in sight. He adopted a lot of Trump’s rhetoric and communicated a lot through tweets and bullied some of the press. But as Trump’s star started to fade when he took office this year, so did Wilders’.

Wilders was responsible for most of his own decline. During the campaigns he was conspicuous by his absence; he didn’t join in the debates where more parties were present except for the last  debate between Rutte and himself only, he did few rallies – perhaps cautious because his earlier conviction for insulting a group of people and enticement to discriminate, and he had little contact with his base, which he could partly attribute to failing security measures. He was asked to release his party program, like all other parties do, but could offer no more than one sheet of paper with a few bullet points and a few [to be filled in later]s, but no plans whatsoever and ending with a damning “etcetera“. By election time Wilder’s polling numbers had come down already, and even though our own media tried to whip up a bit more tension by referring to the “forgotten voters”, Trump and Brexit, that never resulted in the anxiety felt across our borders.

So, with a poll attendance of over 80% – no, the Dutch have not all turned away from politics – Rutte’s VVD has lost seats but has come out on top with 33 seats, and Wilders has won 5 seats but hasn’t matched his peak of 2010 of 24 seats with only 20 now. Rutte is expected to form a new government, Rutte III, together with numbers three and four.

So is all well now in The Netherlands? In my opinion, not really. While populist Wilders may seem to be slowly on his way out, quite a few new right-wing populist have taken his place by way of Denk (3 seats, popular among Turkish-Dutch), Forum van Thierry Baudet (2 seats, popular among Alt-Right), and 50Plus has doubled in size (4 seats, popular among the elderly). Labour has been annihilated, while the CDA, a Christian coalition, had chosen to aggressively fill the nationalistic and anti-Islam shoes that Wilders had failed to fill in debates and thus has managed to resurface and to become the third-largest party after Rutte’s VVD and Wilders’ PVV. Rutte’s party is called a liberal party in Europe, which is not to be confused with American liberals; the VVD sits firmly on the right of the political spectrum and has been responsible for the austerity that nearly bled us dry in the past. In all likelihood the new government will consist of right wing VVD and CDA and centrum party D66 with an additional small party to obtain a majority, which will be a further shift to the right, while at the same time it has to govern with an unruly opposition of a diversity of Social Democrats and populist parties.

Oct 202016


You might say that Donald Trump has put his foot in it in last night’s final Presidential Debate when the Jeff Flake, senator from Arizona, one of the swing-states twitters:
[email protected] saying that he might not accept election results is beyond the pale
and when conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer from Fox News thinks that Trump blew his chances with this answer on accepting the results. “Political suicide.” Krauthammer called it because in his view Trump should have stopped the slide in this debate. The slide of people grudgingly going over to Clinton after holding out for a year. He thinks that people are not going to change their views on Clinton, but if they can change their views on Trump. Trump should have shown them that he is acceptable as president, not a radical. They don't want a radical who will challenge the foundations of the republic.

Right-wing New York Post-columnist John Podhoretz also comes to the conclusion that Donald Trump just handed Hillary Clinton the election with his refusal to be clear on what will happen if he loses the election.

Not accepting the results is the main theme of comments in many Western countries.  Anna Caldwell in from News Corp Australia Network blogs: “Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump doubled down on controversial claims that the US election is rigged during a presidential debate, refusing to say he will respect the result.

Other news sites media commented on the debate, and on Trump in particular, in a more general fashion. Australian The New Daily quotes Bryan Cranston, a Swinburne University politics expert: “Trump’s biggest strength is himself, but it is also his weakness. Facts play little role in his campaign and his rhetoric and spin works well when he is only with supporters. [emphasis mine] But in a debate with an opponent you need facts, and the holes in his argument became dramatically transparent.”

Anthony Zurcher, North America reporter for the BBC describes how “after roughly half an hour of something resembling an actual policy debate about the Supreme Court, gun rights, abortion and even immigration, the old Donald Trump – the one who constantly interrupted his opponent, sparred with the moderator and lashed out at enemies real and perceived – emerged.” And concludes with “Mr Trump has called American democracy into question – and when he shakes that particular tree, it's impossible to determine who might get crushed by falling branches.

On the Dutch national news site Sander Warmerdam warns: “The big question remains what happens when Trump doesn't win this time. Clinton is doing very well in the polls. This debate will go down well with the angry Trump supporters but will move few undecided voters.” [my translation]

There is a certain feeling of unease emanating from the European and Australian comments since Donald Trump became the Republican nominee and that becomes most apparent in statements about the Trump’s voters pointing out that his supporters stay loyal to him no matter how many of his statement are debunked by fact checkers or how many times his statements are called bigoted, racist, misogynist or islamophobic. Much attention is payed to Trump voters not believing the facts that are revealed about his personal life and behavior nor of his disdain for them as group. The fact that about 40% of Americans still favor Trump is both baffling and worrying to the media, but also a grateful subject to keep ratings high.  


This has also been noted by TV  reviewers like Hans Beerekamp who noted: “I’m starting to find the outrage in the media about the American circus quite hypocritical, because many of the same media have always eagerly reported on the polarization and to a large extent have created it. It's TV that has given birth to Trump (Verdonk, Wilders), not the other way around. By the excessive media attention for their views, these have become more acceptable. [translation mine]" Beerenkamp refers here to Rita Verdonk and Geert Wilders, two Dutch populists, and by doing so uncovers the source of the unease felt by many in the West: large groups of voters, unhappy with the way their country is run, looking for leaders who appear to listen to them.

Europe and Australia are no strangers to a growing population of grudging, anti-establishment or protest voters who are willing to throw in their lot with populist politicians and parties. The Dutch have their Geert Wilders and his PVV, claiming to be Prime Minister after next year’s elections, France has her Marine Le Pen and her Front National who did very well in the local elections this year, Australia has seen the return of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation in the senate. And of course Nigel Farage and UKIP have made their indelible mark on the British Brexit referendum.

Dutch protester welcoming fugitives told off by Wilders supporter
AD/Jean-Pierre Jans

Britons, edged on by UKIP and some conservatives in the Tory party (Boris Johnson), have voted to leave the European Union and have left Europeans and its economies, especially that of the UK itself) in a state of shock and have made leaders more aware of the attraction populist have to dissatisfied and angry people, both in Europe and in America. Even “establishment” institute like the IMF have seen the writing on the wall and are willing to (partly) put blame where blame is due. In a report released at the beginning of the month the IMF said “Globally, concerns are growing about political discontent, income inequality and populist policies, threatening to derail globalization.” IMF chief economist Obstfeld said "that persistently weak growth that leaves lower-income people behind has fueled a political movement "that blames globalization for all woes" adding that the vote for "Brexit" was one example of this. He warned governments that "Without a determined policy action to support economic activity over the short and longer terms subpar growth at recent levels risks feeding on itself through the negative economic and political forces it is unleashing." In other words: governments should invest more in those that have not benefitted from growth in the past and decrease income inequality instead of widening the gap if they want to see economic growth in their country.

Words Hillary Clinton would do well to heed, because when she wins the election, Donald Trump may soon fade from the political scene, but his voters, and those of all the other populists in the world, will still be there.

Jun 022016

hedgehog-looks-binocularsWhat do the campaigns of America’s Trump and Britain’s Brexit “outers” have in common?

First of all, on this side of the Atlantic, we are inundated with news about both. Not a day goes by without media mentioning yet another shocking Trump statement and more, mostly worried, commentaries and analyses of the effects Trump’s possible presidency could have on us. The same can be said about the upcoming Brexit referendum that will be held this coming 23rd of June, when the British have their say on whether their country should leave the European Union or not. Should the majority opt for “outing”, something their government has promised to do if that is the case, this will have major consequences for both Britain and the other countries in the EU, and to some extent for countries in the Commonwealth like Australia.

Second, the leadership style of both Trump and the strong man behind the out campaigners, UKIP leader Nigel Farage, now joined by the Tories’ former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is that of the populist “whose often incoherent  and contradictory remarks are provocative and play on the feelings of resentment and contempt, mixed with a touch of fear, hatred and anger.” (Robert Kagan in NRCHandelsblad, May 25, 2016). Both Trump and Farage present themselves as men of the people, and surround themselves with their very personal mix of inflated ego and machismo. This mix also applies to Boris Johnson, who has created a schism in his own party by campaigning for an EU exit against his party’s leader David Cameron’s pro EU stance has been referred to as being “a much nicer version of Donald Trump but the campaign is remarkably similar and about as relevant to the real problems that the public face,” by Ken Clarke, former Conservative Cabinet minister.

That last remark brings me to the final common denominator: very strong nationalism and isolationism. Trump wants to make America great again, Farage wants to have his country be given back to him, and both play into the rising anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments among their followers. Trump promises to build a wall to keep all illegal and “criminal” Mexicans from entering the country, Farage wants to stop the influx of workers and immigrants from EU countries like Poland and Rumania by leaving the EU, making immigration the focus of the Brexit campaign for the out-campaigners, while the (negative) effects on the economy have become the focus of those who want to remain. Both Trump and the “outers” promise that America and Britain will become economically stronger when left to their own devices.


Britain’s departure from the EU will have economic and social consequences for countries in the EU too, and will undermine the fragile unity within the EU itself, so generally speaking the other EU members do not want Britain to leave. But how about the members of the Commonwealth? Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already urged the British to remain in the EU and now voices in Australia are joining him.

“Perhaps the greatest threat a Brexit poses to Australia is the potential disruption to a relationship with the EU that at last appears to be on a decent footing. Australia’s recently announced free trade negotiations with the EU have been a long time coming.

Were Britain to exit the EU, there might be some sense of schadenfreude on the Right of Australian politics. But the dismay among diplomats and businesspeople would be heard from Canberra to Kakadu.”

Most analysts in Australia are equally unhappy with Trump’s foreign policy. Some, like the  head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and former chief strategist for the defence department, Peter Jennings, see Trump as a high risk to Australia’s security and say that Trump is part of a bigger phenomenon that Australia should be thinking about:

"There's an emerging isolationism in the Republican party that is a concern. It's worth thinking about it – what do we do if we are in fact facing an inward-looking US that doesn't want to take an interest in Asia-Pacific security?"

Or as Peter Hartcher, the author of the article muses: “These are the questions that Australia has to confront, however discomfiting. In Trump's view of geopolitics as a real estate deal, is Australia prepared to stake its security on his valuation?

Others Australian commentators see him as initiator of a trade war with China and Mexico, undermining the TTP.  Anna Caldwell mentions the “[ ] Economist Intelligent Unit Report – a global forecasting service linked to the The Economist magazine – [has] this week ranked a Trump presidency as one of the top risks facing the world.”

‘In the event of a Trump victory, his hostile attitude to free trade, and alienation of Mexico and China in particular, could escalate rapidly into a trade war – and at the least scupper the TPP’ the report read.”

At first glance, it seems strange that two campaigns about unrelated issues have so much in common, most obviously that they are against everything, especially the powers that be.  But I’m sure that as the Trump election campaign and the Brexit campaigns continue, we’re bound to hear more voices join in the nationalist chorus across Western countries because, unfortunately, it isn’t only American and British nationalism that is on the rise, but a growing phenomenon fostered by populist by tapping into the growing dissatisfaction with inequality and government in general. Those of us who see it all from afar will now have to keep our fingers crossed until the end of this month for the Brexit referendum and November for the American elections and hope that our British and American friends use their democratic rights well and make sure that the campaigns of the “outers” and Trump were to no avail.

On a brighter note I want to leave you with this ditty which sums up Trump’s foreign policy so very well:

My name is Donald with an unchecked mouth,
I’ll build a great wall – on our borders south.
I’ll ship back home – the rapists and crooks,
And all those who protest – just liberal sooks.
To confuse the world – that’s my devious plan,
And notions of dichotomy and isolation – to fan.
So, the rest can starve – and the USA can feast,
To top it off, let’s carpet-bomb – the Middle East.


Howe Synnott, Sydney, May 17, 2016, 7:31AM